Types of Digital Writing
There are many types of digital legal writing, ranging from digitized versions of court orders to law firm marketing materials. But this article will focus on just two.
Guides and Analysis
First, some online legal materials provide a more in-depth view of a particular case, recent developments, or advice on handling a particular topic or issue. And they can come in a variety of formats. For example, Lindsey Lawton, a Florida appellate lawyer, frequently posts advice on legal writing with mini blog posts on LinkedIn. On the other hand, Law360 and Substack publications like David Lat’s Original Jurisdiction or Chris Geidner’s Law Dork provide their information in a more traditional article or newsletter format.
Resources and Compilations
Second, and more focused on providing a resource to practitioners or the public, other online legal writing compiles information on specific topics or fields of law. Thus, my Substack newsletter, Appellate Happenings, highlights recent decisions from the federal appellate courts. Likewise, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers puts together resource pages for practitioners, including banks of sample briefs for suppression motions and other common criminal case filings.
It's worth noting here that special concerns may relate to certain categories of writing. For example, professional conduct often restricts what you can say in marketing materials or how you say it. You should always double-check those rules before you publish.
Tips for Digital Writing
Tailoring your writing to a digital forum comes down to three things: (1) layering information, (2) embracing flexibility and interactivity, and (3) picking the right forum.
1. Layering Your Content on the Page
Online readers’ time is often at a premium. Unlike someone who picks up a book or newspaper, online readers aren’t coming to your piece with a plan to read for a significant period—they’re glancing at it in their email inbox or browsing through it on their phone, waiting for a flight, etc. So, how can you best accommodate this sort of reader without losing those who come to the piece for an in-depth treatment?
The answer is what I call layering. You start with the highest level: Maybe it’s a quick quote or subtitle that includes the main message of your piece or an infographic. Regardless, it allows a reader to get the essence of your piece quickly.
Consider an October 23, 2023, Law Dork piece about the Supreme Court’s decision to review a Fifth Circuit decision finding that the Biden Administration’s contacts with social media companies violated the First Amendment. The full title of the piece is: “SCOTUS will hear case over Biden admin and social-media content moderation: During the appeal, SCOTUS put lower courts’ rulings on hold that would have barred the administration from some contact with social media companies.” You understand the point without even reading the rest of the piece.
After this tagline or takeaway level comes the summary level. This level provides more detail and summarizes the best arguments or evidence for your point. But it can be read in a few minutes at most. In the Law Dork piece, the first two paragraphs quickly recount the procedural posture of the case, the nature of the arguments, and the decision’s potential implications.
Here’s where you spell out your argument or analysis in full, as Mr. Geidner does in his Law Dork post. This is the level for the readers you pulled in at the summary level, who either take the time to read it right away or bookmark it to come back to later. Your goal is to get readers interested enough to make it here through good writing and creative use of digital features.
Provide readers with your sources or leads on additional information, generally via hyperlinks, allowing them to take a deep dive if they want to. While only your most interested and committed readers will use this material, it’s comforting to all readers to know that the underlying sources are at their fingertips if they want them, lending credibility to your point.
Not every piece needs all four of these layers. Appellate Happenings and other similar, round-up-style pieces might only have a summary and backup levels. It depends on the length of your piece, the complexity of the topic, and the forum you’re in (e.g., no treatises as LinkedIn posts). Give your readers options that fit their schedule so they can come back for more if they want.
2. Embrace Interactivity in Your Online Writing
A paper newsletter would not have allowed you to include hyperlinked opinion buttons connecting your thumbnail sketches of court decisions to the actual slip opinion on the court’s website or embedded audio files. But standard word-processing software and many online publishing platforms come with options for organizational charts, screenshots, and more that allow you to provide more visual and interactive information.
Online media also allows you to interact more easily with your readers through comment sections, forums, etc. This can be a real opportunity for networking and gathering helpful feedback on your posts. And many online readers expect some level of responsiveness from the author.
That said, as Ms. Lawton told me, you should be cautious when engaging people on the internet: “[A]s with any social media platform, LinkedIn can get negative occasionally. You have to be careful in how you deal with that negativity, remembering that you are there for a professional purpose.” What’s true of LinkedIn is true of nearly every other platform. We all know people who have become just a bit too online. Keeping a set publication schedule and ignoring negative reader feedback can keep that risk at a minimum.
Don’t just think of online writing as analog writing on a screen. Play around with different ways of making your point through links, graphics, and other features that take advantage of a more interactive environment.
3. Choose the Best Forum for Your Content
Before you start writing, think about the best place to post your content and how you’ll share it. If you’re planning on writing a longer piece with lots of links, LinkedIn probably won’t work, but you can always promote your work with a quick post and a link. A Substack newsletter is great if you plan to keep to a regular or semi-regular posting schedule, but it doesn’t make as much sense for one-off articles. Submitting your draft to a more organized online forum, like Law360 or some of the ABA’s online publications, allows you to take advantage of their established readership. But it comes at the cost of some level of editorial control.
Pause for a moment before you write and consider what you hope to accomplish with your piece, what will get it in front of the most people, and how much time you plan to commit to the project. It’s much easier to think through these issues now than after committing to a publication or preparing a draft.
Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment with Your Writing Online
I’ll conclude with one last piece of advice: If you want to begin writing online, don’t be afraid to experiment. Lawton explains that, when she started, she didn’t even consider her LinkedIn posts as a blog or having a consistent theme, just “the general idea that [she] would post information that would be useful to other attorneys.”
Soon, I learned that having a theme is a good way to grow a network on LinkedIn, so I chose some themes I have experience with and relate to my practice: grammar, appellate practice, and legal writing. The type of writing I do for LinkedIn is much more casual than my legal writing. It’s low-risk and low-commitment.
The benefit of writing online is that it can be an organic and iterative process. You can always try a different tact.